SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- It didn't take long for Jack Birmingham to make an impression with the No. 30 Jimmy Dean Pontiac driven by Derrike Cope.
Less than a week after Birmingham bought the team from Chuck Rider, he fired 30 employees. He kept six crewmen, four office workers and Cope.
"They hired Barry Dodson to run the team and we've only had two days together before we got to Indianapolis," Cope said. "But in two days, I can already see the light at the end of the tunnel. We're already better than we've been all year."
Dodson canned everyone in the engine shop and the team now leases engines from an outside contractor.
The shakeup must have helped. Cope made the starting lineup for the Brickyard 400, only his 11th start this year after failing to qualify for nine events. After starting 31st, Cope finished 32nd.
CHECKERED PASTS: John Andretti, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart not only call Indiana home, but all three also used to drive midgets around the Midwest for Rollie Helmling.
Gordon, who started on the pole for Saturday's Brickyard 400, recalled how he was hired by the popular car owner, saying: "I had just gotten fired from my sprint car ride. He and Bob East were putting a new car together for the Night Before the 500 (at nearby Indianapolis Raceway Park) and needed a driver. I was in the right place at the right time. We set a new track record, won the race and that changed my career."
Andretti said his ride with Helmling was his first professional gig, while Stewart used his stint with Helmling as a springboard to the 1994 USAC championship.
HE SAID IT: Darrell Waltrip, who Thursday announced he would retire as a driver at the end of the 2000 NASCAR Winston Cup season, solidified his future as a television commentator while offering color for ABC to the International Race of Champions.
After he watched race winner Mark Martin lead the final 32 laps in the 40-lap event, he said: "The more I watch racing, the more I like wrestling."
HE SAID IT, PART II: After getting bumped by Geoffrey Bodine in the second turn and slamming into the outside wall, Chad Little offered his explanation of the accident: "I got bumped by a bald-headed cue ball. I'm not saying anything because I'm counting to 10. I got bumped out of (turn) one and again into two. I'm very disappointed because the car was strong. We were moving up. There's got to be give and take. In the end, I just got taken out by Bodine."
PIT STOPS: Counting Saturday's Brickyard 400, no driver starting in the 25th position has won a Winston Cup race since the modern era started in 1972, a stretch of 828 races ... Tony George, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and founder of the beleaguered Indy Racing League, put the brakes on a proposed unification with CART on Friday, saying both open-wheeled series likely won't be together in 2000 and that 2001 is questionable. The hangup continues to be engines. IRL uses normally aspirated engines built by Oldsmobile and Infinti, while CART uses turbo-charged engines built by Mercedes, Ford, Toyota and Honda. Neither side apparently can agree to a formula that would put all of the engine manufacturers on a level playing field ... Charlotte Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler suggested the IRL, which has not enjoyed a strong following in the heart of stock car country, may not be at his raceway in the future. Charlotte is a sister track to Atlanta, another raceway that's struggled to put fans in the stands for IRL races ... Jason Keller won Friday's night's Kroger 200 for the NASCAR Busch Series at nearby Indianapolis Raceway Park. Between the Brickyard and IRP, Indianapolis is the only city to stage a NASCAR tripleheader with all three of its headlining series - Craftsman Trucks, which raced at IRP on Thursday, Busch Series and Winston Cup -- on the same weekend ... Jeff Gordon is the only driver to lead at least one lap in all six Brickyard 400 races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.